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Pierce gets his point across

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 4, 2010

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In the midst of chaos, a choppy game the Celtics didn’t deserve to win, the controversy caused by close friend and teammate Kevin Garnett, and his own offensive malaise through three quarters, Paul Pierce stepped to the forefront in overtime last night, reaching a milestone that many never believed possible.

Paul Pierce residing among the Celtic greats? Ha. Maybe among the Celtic greats of the 2000s or the post-Bird era. But not of all time. Not after being plagued by losing, immaturity, and bouts with selfishness.

Perhaps no athlete in Boston history has resurrected his image more than Pierce. Initially, he was a symbol of what was wrong with today’s NBA, a brash kid with a chip on his shoulder, angry that he had slipped to 10th in the 1998 draft and dropped into a situation where Celtics fans demanded and were accustomed to greatness.

It took Pierce years, countless growing pains, and a little help, but he reached greatness, and the sellout crowd of 18,624 at TD Garden understood the significance of the moment when Pierce stepped to the free throw line with 13.3 seconds left in overtime and the Celtics leading the Milwaukee Bucks, 99-97.

Not only was Pierce called upon as he has been repeatedly during his career to seal a win, but the first of the free throws would catapult him to a personal stratosphere, 20,000 career points, achieved by only 35 others.

This was his ticket to Springfield. And fast-forward to that day, where Pierce dons a crisp suit, bright smile, and strolls to the stage for his acceptance speech, just as he did to the basket during his career. Pierce has traveled at his own pace to greatness, and on a November night he arrived, surrounded by thousands of well-wishers who over time recognized his rightful place in team history.

He isn’t Larry Bird or John Havlicek or Dave Cowens. He didn’t win 11 rings like Bill Russell or didn’t lead two unlikely teams to titles like JoJo White. Pierce joined the Celtics during hard times, became the face of a downtrodden franchise, then revitalized his career with the aid of two All-Stars, both of whom were as foreign to team success as he.

So now all three reside in the 20,000-point club, but Pierce is the lone one of the Big Three to score each point with one team.

“It was an emotional moment for me,’’ he said. “Tough for me to swallow. I was just thinking about all the years I have been here and you don’t see it too often where a player accomplishes that kind of feat playing with one team. It’s a great accomplishment, you know, the fans seeing my ups and downs throughout the years and sticking with me. Just to be able to accomplish this type of feat, it means a lot to me.’’

During Tuesday’s win over the Pistons, Pierce, just called for a blocking foul in the second half, walked to the scorer’s table and asked when he would finally get some respect. There is a part of Pierce who feels he doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves, and perhaps that is what drives him.

There are those in Boston who never forgave the young Pierce for the immaturity that almost led to the end of his career the night he was stabbed in 2000. Those same people accused him of being all about scoring and too little about winning. There is a part of Pierce that will never be satisfied with who he is, never feel like he’s good enough to measure up to the standards of Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Havlicek, although those greats have recognized his accomplishments as a Celtic.

The four-year contract Pierce signed this summer was a significant step toward that personal respectability because it signaled that he would end his career in Boston. There are times he felt unwanted by the organization, often waiting to be shipped somewhere else. But as his career progressed, it became a stranger vision to see Pierce wearing another uniform.

That was especially the case this summer when Pierce opted out of the final year of his contract and was an unrestricted free agent for about 24 hours. Would he be one of those Celtic greats who wore out his welcome and was forced to finish in another city?

The more time Pierce spent in green, the more he wanted to stay, and the more he sought respect for his achievements. So, he was brought to tears when the 18,624 cheered in approval for his career-defining feat. It was their way of saying thank you, two words Pierce has waited 12 years to hear.

“It was a little emotional, a lot of people in here, they’ve seen a lot of that, 20,000, not a lot of people in NBA history have accomplished that. Just to make history for the NBA is great,’’ he said. “Five years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed I would be scoring 20,000 points in a Celtics uniform. The team was going in a direction, I was a disgruntled player at the time, to be here and be talking about this feat is an incredible moment for me.’’

And it was an incredible moment for us.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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